The idea of political reform in China has been a topic that my family has hotly debated for literally decades. It’s something that I have always heard discussed at family gatherings ever since when I was a child. Over the years I have become more learned in western politics and the structure of the two democracies closest to me, namely Canada and the United States. It is from these experiences that I draw the following conclusions with regards to the prospect of a Chinese democracy.
There are definite differences between Chinese culture and that of western liberal democracies. The key difference being that China has always been a populous nation, most notably right now. Even in the 18th century China’s population exceeded the combined total of Europe. In such a populous place, individualism simply has no room to exist. To co-exist with this many people, not everyone can be a special snowflake and fierce competition means that most people will seek to optimize the path they take in life and that of their children. This is something that most democracies don’t understand; since their population density is much lower.
Second, China’s power structure is distinct from Canada and the US. Both Canada and the US have ‘limited’ federal governments. For example, in Canada right now there is much discussion between Alberta and British Columbia on the prospect of a pipeline from the oil sands patch to a port in BC. This would never happen in China; a project of such a high level of importance would not rest on the decision of two provincial premiers. Instead, the Central Government would issue an edict, and it will be followed. In the United States many key social issues are determined by a state-by-state basis. This includes gay marriage, marijuana legalization, abortion laws, education, etc. In China this simply won’t do; as the possibility that ‘morality’ and legality differs from place to place within China is unthinkable. Indeed, within China all provincial premiers are appointed by the central government. If they are not doing a satisfactory or even excellent job, relative to the political agenda of the Central Government, they can be demoted, stay the same rank on their next job, or outright fired. This is dramatically different from Canada or the US where the president and parliament/congress have little authority to remove provincial premiers/state governors from power.
So, any Chinese democracy will need to have two key ingredients: it will need to function in a society where individualism is by necessity untenable, and that it must ultimately support a very strong central government.
My personal take on the project is that to support the first requirement, a Chinese democracy will necessarily be restrictive relative to western counterparts. The basic tenet of western liberal style democracy, that everyone gets one vote, is likely not passable in China. This is because of two things: given China’s history as an extremely populous nation and its history steeped in a tradition of having to write a difficult academic exam to serve in government in the imperial era, Chinese people first don’t believe that people have value just for being born (i.e. voting is not an ‘inalienable right’), and that uneducated people should not serve in government nor have any part in it. Thus a Chinese democracy will likely bar uneducated people from voting at all, or even if they allow everyone to vote, the voting system will be weighted towards educated people.
To support the second requirement, it would be likely that China’s democracy is restricted, ultimately, to the highest level. Municipal and provincial elections may occur but the governments elected will have very limited powers, and most importantly, they can be easily removed from power by the central government should they fall out of line. This is steeped in an ancient fear of Chinese people: In our 2200 years of history as a unified nation, we have in fact experienced many periods where our nation was split into many pieces either by foreign powers or internal unrest. These periods always begin with the weakening of the central government. You can imagine then why a strong central government is perceived as fundamentally important to the security and stability of China as a country.
So while I believe political reform and democratization in China is an inevitable step in the next half century, the final product will likely be unrecognizable by the west.